JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 30.5.14.
ON MONDAY MORNING, as the final Euro elections results were being confirmed, I made my way up to the NHS outpost in Lauriston Place for un ultrasound scan. I was feeling so traumatised by Scotland’s lapse of judgment in electing a UKIP MEP – and by England’s alarming decision to prefer Nigel Farage and his crew to all other parties – that I found myself peering suspiciously at everyone in the street; the guilty 140,000 Scottish UKIP voters must be somewhere, I reasoned, so why not here? When the doctor arrived to carry out my examination, though, she turned out to be a young Polish woman, firm, charming, and – so far as I could tell – formidably skilful. “You have quite a few gall stones!” she announced, peering at shadowy images of my innards; and posted me back to my GP to discuss whether to attempt a change of my late-night fish-supper lifestyle, or to have the whole thing out, and the stones made into earrings.
The shifting population of 21st century Edinburgh is one of the many things I love about this once-staid city; living near Leith Walk, I only have to step out of the door to enter into a little United Nations of visiting students and longer-term migrants, studying or making lives here. And it’s striking that in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK, areas which actually have large numbers of new EU migrants were less likely to vote for UKIP than areas where their presence is relatively small; UKIP scored only 7.7% of the vote in Edinburgh, compared with more than 13% in – for example – Dumfries and Galloway.
All of which should be good news for Alex Salmond and the SNP, as they move into the final months of campaigning towards September’s referendum. This week, in the immediate aftermath of the result, Alex Salmond boldly announced that he would like to see a modest increase in net immigration to Scotland over the next decades, in order to ensure a rising level of economic dynamism and growth. His refusal to pander to UKIP’s anti-migration agenda is commendable; and across the board, his party has every reason to take pride in their achievement in last week’s poll. After seven years in government, they have suffered none of the protest-vote kicking administered to most ruling parties across Europe, winning the popular vote by a handsome margin; and like Angela Merkel’s government in Germany, they have succeeded in keeping the far-right vote to a modest 10%, compared with a frightening UKIP vote across England of almost 30%.
Yet somewhere beneath the surface of British politics, there are forces unleashed by this surge in UKIP support that may make life more difficult for Alex Salmond and the SNP, during these vital months. In the first place, UKIP’s success in scraping a single seat here damages, however slightly, the hopeful vision of Scotland as a progressive country on which much of the “Yes” campaign’s energy depends – hence the horrible gloating, on Sunday night, of some supporters of the “No” camp. More seriously, it also exposes some of the deep divisions in Alex Salmond’s “Yes” coalition. There have always been right-wing opinions in some sections of the SNP, of course. Here as elsewhere in the UK, though, it was easier to ignore them before UKIP set about mobilising and legitimising Britain’s many sub-cultures of backward-looking bigotry; and the “No” campaign will now no doubt start playing the anti-immigation card against the SNP, in an effort to prise those right-leaning SNP supporters out of the “yes” camp.
And then secondly, there is the performance throughout the UK of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, which – though far from triumphant – was not bad enough to make a Labour win in the 2015 general election seem impossible. On the contrary, the party performed strikingly well in some key areas, and also retained a quarter of the votes in Scotland, despite the feeble performance of the party’s Scottish leadership in recent months. What’s more, it now seems possible that the shock of last weekend’s UKIP win may galvanise the Labour Party south of the Border into mounting a more vigorous fightback against the rightward drift of UK politics. Ed Miliband has already said that he will not be drawn into offering an in-out referendum on Europe; and when even Tony Blair is advising the Labour leadership to confront UKIP’s lies on immigration more robustly, something in English politics is clearly shifting a little.
And modern Scottish voters, as Alex Salmond well knows, are famously far more content with the Union, and far more willing to give it another chance, when they think it will be governed from the centre-left, rather than the right. Whether Ed Miliband will manage to carve out a credible centre-left position for his party before the next General Election remains to be seen; but the pressure of this week’s events may well have made that outcome more likely, not less so. And in the meantime, with most independence referendum polls still lingering around the 10% gap mark, it becomes slightly harder to see how Alex Salmond can build a coalition that will push the “yes” vote over 50%, even if “yes”supporters are strikingly more enthusiastic about coming out to vote, and more numerous at grass roots level.
Given the the mixture of scare-mongering and condescension offered by the “No” campaign so far – exemplified by the fierce row surrounding this week’s Treasury report on the cost of independence, denounced as deliberately misleading by the LSE professor who provided the figures – it becomes increasingly clear that a “No” vote in September will be something of a tragedy for Scotland, carte blanche to an arrogant British establishment to forget Scotland for another generation, to continue to strip our assets, and to treat us with the contempt they will feel we have deserved. Yet it is the purpose of parties like UKIP to divide ordinary people against one another, and to distract them from uniting in a progressive cause. And last weekend, in Scotland, they achieved a little of that; in a way that may well damage the possibility of progress, and strengthen the hands of those who would defend existing patterns of power, against any suggestion of genuine radical change.